The majority of school foodservice directors say that implementing new nutrition standards and meal patterns is the most pressing issue facing cafeteria programs across the nation this fall, according to a recent report from the School Nutrition Association (SNA). The report, based on an analysis of 1,294 survey responses from districts in 48 states, found that 69.5% of respondents are focused on meeting the new, healthier standards proposed by the USDA this past January.
These proposed standards establish maximum calorie and sodium limits for school meals and require schools to increase the frequency and variety of the fruits and vegetables and whole grains they serve. These proposed standards are currently being finalized and should take effect at the beginning of the 2012/2013 school year.
“Many school districts are already well on their way to meeting these proposed standards, but others will struggle with the increased cost of meeting new requirements. Many schools will also require new kitchen equipment, more staff and training to implement the new standards. Given regional differences in the cost of labor and food and other factors, some schools are better equipped to make the changes than others,” says Helen Phillips, SNS, president of the SNA and Senior Director of School Nutrition for Norfolk Public Schools (Virginia).
The USDA estimates that the cost of preparing a lunch to meet these standards will rise by more than 15 cents; breakfast by more than 51 cents. Indeed, funding (66.4%) and the cost of food (53.1%) continue to be pressing issues for all schools in the 2011 report.
“Particularly in this tough economy, school nutrition directors work hard to keep school meal prices low for the families they serve. In addition to reducing the burden on families, schools want to keep prices low to encourage more students to purchase well balanced school meals, which always offer a choice of fruits, vegetables, milk and a protein and grain served in age appropriate portion sizes,” says Phillips.
In addition to keeping meal prices low, schools are constantly seeking ways to improve the taste and nutrition of school meals, including purchasing the freshest possible ingredients. The survey indicated both an increase in local sourcing of produce and a heightened interest in initiatives to further these efforts. Similar to trends in local farmers markets and supermarkets, schools have been able to access more local farm-fresh foods in recent years through Farm to School programs, by partnering with local farmers or asking their produce distributors to purchase more foods from regional sources.
“Many school nutrition programs are working to teach kids more about where their food comes from. When students meet their local farmers, learn about food grown in their communities or get the chance to grow vegetables in a school garden, they are more excited to give those foods a try,” says Phillips.
Close to 100% of schools now offer fresh fruit and vegetables in their cafeterias, 97.2% offer whole grains, 89.7% offer salads and 86.3% offer yogurt in at least one school in their district. Fat-free or low-fat milk is offered in 98.2% of schools and is the most popular beverage choice among students; flavored milk runs a close second at 95.4%.
Efforts to provide foods for students with special diets are succeeding too. Vegetarians can purchase meals in 63.8% of school districts, those on a gluten-free diet can do so in 31.6% of school districts. Lactose-free milk and soy or rice milk are provided in 25.7% (compared to 16.6% in 2009) and 18.2% (compared to 14% in 2009) of districts, respectively.
“In my school district, we've been mixing up the menu and serving choices like Baja Fish Tacos, Asian Chicken Salad and Oven Roasted Chicken with Sweet Potatoes. We're serving fewer starchy vegetables, and have gotten our students to try choices like fresh Jicama Sticks and Pineapple Spears. Last year we swapped out our Chicken Patty for a Chicken Fillet. My current goal is to phase out all canned fruits and vegetables (except for applesauce) to serve all fresh produce. We're always experimenting with ways to improve the nutrition of our meals,” says Phillips.
Phillips says that schools have made tremendous progress in offering more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and healthier choices in the cafeteria. Pizza remains a popular choice in school lunches, but today, school pizza is often made with a whole wheat crust, low fat cheese and reduced sodium sauce. French fries are now baked instead of fried and more schools are offering sweet potato fries. The goal, says Phillips, is to provide nutritious, well-balanced meals for our students that they will eat and enjoy.
“As schools continue to work to reduce the added sodium and sugar in school meals and offer more diverse fruits and vegetables, it is critical that parents and industry partners are also making these healthy changes in the food served at home and sold at groceries and restaurants. Kids are far more likely to pick up healthier choices in the lunch line if they have already tried those foods at home. We all have a responsibility to role model good choices for young people, and to win the battle against childhood obesity, we must make an effort to improve the food offered to kids at school, home and in our communities,” she adds.